The Academy responds to news that Public Health England is to be replaced by a new body, the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), to be led by Baroness Dido Harding and to be focused on external health threats like pandemics.
Professor Dame Anne Johnson FMedSci, Vice President (International) at the Academy of Medical Sciences and Chair of the Academy’s Improving the health of the public by 2040 policy report:
“The COVID pandemic has brought to public attention the importance of a strong, efficient and well-funded national public health system. We welcome the recognition from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that our public health system needs more capacity to deal with health threats on such a large scale. The Academy has long called for investment in public health and associated world leading research.
“Creating a new national public health body is a huge and complex task. Making such big changes during a pandemic risks temporarily impeding public health functions and is a high risk strategy.
“We need more information about how and when these changes will be implemented as well as how health protection initiatives will be delivered in future and will be aligned with wider health promotion. We also need to know how lessons learned from the pandemic response will feed into the design of a strengthened public health system.
“The new organisation will only be fully effective if it receives sufficient and sustained resources, is sufficiently independent from government and is given the ability to lead cutting edge research in collaboration with academic and other partners including industry.
“It is also essential that we retain the wealth of expertise that can be found at Public Health England and that the new organisation creates an environment that attracts the brightest and best. Finally it will need to be fully integrated with services in local authorities and linked into the NHS and academia at both a national and local level.
“From the announcement today, there is not yet enough information to judge how well the new National Institute for Health Protection will fit these criteria.”
Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, President of The Academy of Medical Sciences, said:
“Public health monitoring and interventions are critical to the good health of our society. This is an extremely complex task that requires broad and evolving expertise, independence, agility and close connections with researchers, healthcare systems, industry, government and local authorities. Any changes the government makes should be carefully thought through and informed by the best experts in this area in the UK and internationally.
“We should resist the temptation to entirely redesign our public health system through a COVID lens. We must keep in mind that illnesses such as HIV, heart disease, cancer and diabetes remain significant causes of UK ill health and premature death. Increasing rates of obesity and an ageing population also present complex health challenges. Any changes we make to our public health system now must give benefits both throughout the pandemic and beyond. This must include the prevention ambitions outlined in the recent green paper.
“We should also ensure that public health services and research are seen as a priority for investment going forwards. Keeping everyone healthy, rather than simply focussing on treating illness, could improve all of our lives and take the strain off the health and social care systems. When the public health service is working well it is not as visible as new hospitals or treatments, yet it is essential to head off future health crises and improve the health of the nation.”
See the Academy's 2016 policy report on Improving the health of the public by 2040 and read its full recommendations here. Find out more about our ongoing policy work supporting the UK response to the COVID-19 pandemic on our information hub.